As the young Egyptian CEO of Majid Al Futtaim Ventures, headquartered in Dubai, Ahmed Galal Ismail is responsible for over 3,000 employees across eight countries in the Middle East and North Africa. The company is responsible for developing new enterprises that complement and reinforce Majid Al Futtaim Holding’s leadership in core industries, and their portfolio is both extensive and impressive. It includes VOX Cinemas, the leading cinema chain in the region, Ski Dubai, the region’s first and largest indoor ski slope, Najm Cards, the pioneering retail-led credit card in partnership with Carrefour, and global fashion brands such as Abercrombie & Fitch, Juicy Couture, Jane Norman, and Hoss Intropia. As for the man himself, Ismail holds an MBA with distinction in finance and strategy from the London Business School and graduated with high honours from the American University in Cairo. He started his career with Procter & Gamble in Cairo and then moved to Frankfurt where he was a regional project manager for projects in Mexico, Geneva, and Saudi Arabia. Prior to joining Majid Al Futtaim, Ismail was with Booz Allen Hamilton in Dubai and co-led the travel and transportation practice. He led a variety of strategy, turnaround, restructuring, and transformation programs for major private sector and government clients across the region. eniGma’s Editor-in-Chief Yasmine Shihata sat down with Ahmed Galal Ismail to learn more about his ambitions and his evolving success story.
So how does a young successful Egyptian end up running a huge international company like Majid Al Futtaim Ventures (MAFV)?
First, I was very lucky to get into that position. I joined Majid Al Futtaim in 2007 after being head hunted to become head of the strategy function for the group. In 2008, right after the economic crisis, I was appointed as the CEO of Majid Al Futtaim Ventures which was a great opportunity for me. But it was also an incredibly difficult time. The very week I started in my new position, Lehman Brothers investment bank collapsed and we were launching a new consumer financing business of our own. There was also a decline in cinema attendance and tourism in Dubai and fashion sales were suffering, so 2008 was a big loss. My background as a strategic consultant meant that a lot of the answers were very clear in my mind, but what you learn by transitioning into a management leadership position is that to get things done, you need a great team. No matter how obvious the answers are, you cannot do it alone; you have to depend on a group of people who are on the same page as you are and I was very lucky to have a strong team. I also had strong support from the Board who gave me this opportunity. They gave me flexibility in taking decisions to move things forward.
We took a lot of difficult decisions in 2008 and 2009 when the economic crisis was at its height in Dubai; for example, we had to reduce the size of our operations. Making these difficult decisions early allowed us to rebound very quickly, so that in 2012 we posted record performance and record profits. At the end of the day there is a saying that goes, ‘culture eats strategy for lunch on any given day.’ So if you have both the right team and the right culture within the company, that is the best guarantee of success.
Is that culture something you brought in or is it something you found when you joined the company?
Culture always starts from the top obviously, and we are a very young organization; I’m only the second CEO of the company. The company has been around for 7 years so fortunately you have the opportunity to shape the culture in terms of how you feel when you interact with people. We are a very diverse group, we have around 50 nationalities and having this multicultural environment allows you to create a unique culture because there’s no dominant culture. It’s not an Arab culture, nor Asian, nor American, so this has been something that has been working for us very well. The other thing is that we are expanding and this growth allows people to develop professionally which creates a very positive momentum.
How are you planning to further expand your activities in the region?
We are already a very regional business. The group already operates in 14 countries, including countries outside the Middle East and North Africa, such as Pakistan, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and so on. For my business specifically, most of it started in Dubai and has progressively grown in the GCC and now we are bringing many of our brands to Egypt – starting with the entertainment business in Mall of Egypt where we are planning on having a vast indoor family entertainment centre. We’re going to be building Ski Egypt which will be the first indoor ski slope in the country. It will be a great addition to the city and to the whole country considering we are 88 million Egyptians, and many have never seen snow nor will they have the chance to until Mall of Egypt is open. We’re also bringing in VOX cinemas for the first time in Egypt. It is the leading cinema chain in the region. We’re also excited about bringing in a lot of fashion brands to Egypt in the coming 12 to 24 months, such as Juicy Couture.
How do you choose the brands you work with and represent in the Middle East?
Competition for brands in the region is very high. The number one retail city in the world is London, but not far behind it at number two is Dubai. We attract top brands that we believe are unique; brands that have some sort of potential affinity with Middle East customers and that have a strong presence in New York or London where a lot of Arabs spend their vacations. And obviously we look for brands that have regional appeal rather than focusing on niche brands that will only work in Dubai. On the entertainment side, we are actually creating our own brands. Over the years we created Magic Planet which is probably the number one family entertainment centre brand. We created Ski Dubai which has become a global brand and last year it had one million visitors. If you compare that to the number of people who pay to visit the pyramids in Egypt, Ski Dubai gets approximately four times as much and the average price is tenfold. We also created an indoors skydiving experience in Dubai called IFly and our own credit card brand, Najm, in collaboration with Carrefour.
What is your view of the current Egyptian situation?
We are a long term investor in Egypt. A lot of investors from abroad, including my company, look at Egypt from the outside and we see the long term potential. If the right decisions are made today, some of them difficult, certainly the market will reach its potential. Despite all the challenges and uncertainties, I have not heard a single investor who said I’m pulling out of Egypt. So no one has actually given up on the country and that is a very positive message. I think we need a lot of positive messages now, especially in the political spectrum. Every Egyptian needs to find a way to be involved, whether it’s with their school, with their university, with an NGO, or with their business. The last thing we need is apathy and disengagement. No matter how small or how local, you can always find a way to get involved and make a difference towards the country’s future.